Pa. House Committee Passes Bill to Toughen Child Abuse Penalties
By Steve Esack
April 5, 2016
One month after a state attorney general's report accused two Catholic bishops of allowing priests to molest and rape children with impunity, a group of lawmakers has gotten tougher on child sex abuse.
A bill that passed the House Judiciary Committee by a 26-1 margin Tuesday would make it harder for some child sex abusers — and employers who protect them — to escape criminal and civil penalties.
But critics say the bill does not go far enough because it would only affect future crimes against children and does not help past victims with no legal recourse to seek justice.
The bill would treat future child sex-abuse crimes like murder, which can be prosecuted any time, by dropping the 30-year statute of limitations on when criminal sex-abuse charges can be filed.
The bill also would add 20 years to the 12-year civil statute of limitations that dictates when an adult who was the victim of child sex abuse can file lawsuits against abusers and institutions. The change means child victims who use the civil court system to pursue justice as adults would have until their 50th birthday to file a private lawsuit against the alleged abuser and institution that employed them.
Two separate amendments that passed in 20-7 votes would partially lift the sovereign immunity clause that prevents child sex-abuse victims from suing state and local governments.
The amendments say a victim could receive up to $200,000 and $500,000 from state or local governments, respectively, if they can prove in a civil lawsuit their abuse was caused by "gross negligence" of officials in responding to a child sex-abuse claim. The dollar amounts are already listed in laws that waive sovereign immunity for accidents on highways, sidewalks and in liquor stores.
The only reason the amendments were offered is because statistics show more abuse occurs in public schools than private institutions, said their author, Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria.
The committee's vote came as a result of a March 1 grand jury report that accused the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown of allowing at least 50 priests and other religious leaders to sexually abuse hundreds of children for five decades. Based on the grand jury report, the attorney general's office on March 15 charged three Franciscan friars with child endangerment and criminal conspiracy.
But the bill would not help most of the Altoona-Johnstown victims who are too old, or soon will be, to have their cases brought before a criminal or civil jury. That's because the bill has no retroactive provisions allowing prosecutors to charge abusers for all past crimes, or to allow victims to sue in civil court no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.
The Altoona-Johnstown grand jury recommended lifting all statutes of limitations, and the same recommendations were made in grand jury reports detailing Jerry Sandusky's crimes and the sex abuse cover-ups in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, said Marci Hamilton, a law professor at Yeshiva University and an expert on statutes of limitations. By focusing only on future crimes, Hamilton said, the bill does little to help current victims or to end what the grand jury reports show is Pennsylvania's long-standing practice of covering up child sex abuse.
The bill is a step in the right direction but the bill is not strong enough without retroactive civil lawsuit provisions, said state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a victim of clergy abuse.
"It's a start," Rozzi said after Tuesday's vote. "But it's still disappointing that the reason we are here today is because of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, where hundreds of victims have been abused and most of those victims have been timed out, and here we are passing bills that would do nothing to give those victims justice, to give those victims the help they deserve."
Rozzi vowed to offer an amendment that would allow retroactive civil lawsuits and said he is expecting a fight from lobbyists.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying umbrella group for every diocese and archdiocese in the state, does not oppose ending the criminal statute of limitations, spokeswoman Amy Hill said.
Hill declined to state the conference's position on the bill's provision to give two extra decades to file private lawsuits against alleged abusers. But, she said, it opposes Rozzi's amendment for retroactive civil suits.
"However, we remain concerned about potential amendments that would retroactively nullify the civil statute of limitations that could lead to the closure of parishes, schools and ministries of today's Catholics, who are in no way responsible for abuse that occurred decades ago," Hill said.
The Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, another lobbying group, is not opposed to the House bill, said Sam Marshall, its executive director. But Rozzi's proposed amendment is another matter. Insurance companies cannot retroactively charge customers for premiums and coverage plans to cover possible lawsuit payouts that occurred in years past, Marshall said.
"I have a lot of respect for Rep. Rozzi," he said. "I respect his goal of helping past victims, but the question of how to help victims of child sex abuse that already happened is a challenging question."
A vote on the bill could be held next week in the full House. It needs to be approved twice to move to the Senate.
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